‘Shadow of a Thief,’ by Norman Green

So like a man who has settled for order instead of law, eventually I gave up on peace and contented myself with what moments of quiet I could find.

If you told me about a mystery story containing a supernatural element which is essentially syncretistic, and in which the main character is possibly demon-possessed during the climax, I’d probably tell you “Not my style. I’ll pass.”

But I got Norman Green’s Shadow of a Thief through an Amazon Prime deal, and I’m hoarding my pennies these days, and the writing was extremely good. So I stayed with it. And you know what? I’m a fan now.

Saul Fowler used to be a burglar, both free-lance and under contract to one of those shadowy US government agencies that so heavily populate fiction. But he succumbed to drugs and alcohol. Then he got clean through Narcotics Anonymous and fled to the northern tip of Maine, where he replaced his old addictions with a new one, to fishing. For his future he has no plans.

Then he’s approached by a man from his past – Reverend McClendon, who was his stepfather, and possibly his natural father. McClendon was the closest thing to a father figure Saul ever had, and he taught him his trade – the confidence game. But he’s a TV preacher now and – he claims – he’s turned his life around. He genuinely believes, he says, in Christianity (though his theology appears pretty pathetic).

He had (he says) a daughter, who might have been Saul’s half-sister. She has been cruelly murdered, and McClendon thinks Saul has the skills to look more deeply into the mystery than the cops have. They blame it on gang warfare (the girl was Chinese-American).

Saul agrees, not entirely sure why. But he has nothing better to do, and maybe he owes McClendon something.

His investigation will take him back home to New York, into the worlds of gangs, prostitution, the NYPD, and urban voodoo.

Theologically, I could criticize this book quite a lot (though I noticed there was no Christian-bashing). But as a story, it worked magnificently. Norman Green is as good a writer as I’ve come across in years – I’m amazed I’d never heard of him before. His prose is elegant, his characters fascinating, his dialogue snappy, his plotting riveting. My interest never once flagged as I read.

I highly recommend Shadow of a Thief, if you can handle some heterodoxy in a fictional setting. Cautions for language and violence.

Leftist vs. liberal

Note: The following is probably twaddle. I’ll think of five ways to say it better by Monday.

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a couple weeks, and in that time I think I’ve found several different angles on it. Let’s see what comes out when I write it down here and now.

What’s the difference between a liberal and a Leftist? It’s an important distinction, I think. I’ve been trying to avoid lambasting liberals for a while now, and targeting Leftists instead. Because there’s a distinction.

A lot of us conservatives call ourselves classical liberals, and I consider that an important point.

Leftism, I think, goes back to Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss philosopher. (I’m not an expert on Rousseau, but he’s come up a lot in my reading – mostly in Allan Bloom and Paul Johnson.) Rousseau was one of those people who, regardless of their own merits, tipped the historical scales. After him, everything was different.

I used to help out with the History and Aims class at the seminary where I worked. And one point I always emphasized was that, regardless how conservative our church body is today, our denominational forebears started out as flaming liberals.

But liberalism was different back then.

What liberalism meant in the 19th Century, I told them, had nothing to do with sexual ethics (at least in the realm of Christian liberalism – secular liberalism was different, thanks in large part to Rousseau). Liberalism had nothing to do with one’s view of Scripture. It had nothing to do with the size of government.

Liberalism was about the place of the common people in society.

Conservatives back then believed in social class. There were the “better people” and the “common people.” The better people, the nobility and the higher clergy, were ordained by God to run the world. They were wise and educated, and deserved to call the shots. The common people should pray, pay, and obey.

Liberals, on the other hand, believed that the common people were every bit as good as their betters. All the common people needed was good moral and practical education.

America, as a social experiment, was based on that belief.

Rousseau was the guy who popularized that view. He differed from Christians in having his own myth of Creation and Fall. Originally, he said, Man was a Noble Savage, living in a State of Nature. He was virtuous without effort.

Then along came civilization. Civilization brought rules and laws and social differentiation. And somehow (he never explained how) Virtuous Savage Man became Corrupt Civilized Man. It was all the fault of the laws and customs that came with civilization. (The Greens hold a variety of this doctrine today.)

I’m not sure Rousseau was looking for the kind of revolutionary uses the French would make of his theories. The whole French Revolution was an attempt to tear down the old corrupt order and replace it with a new rational order, in which the virtue of the Noble Savage might flourish again.

They got the Savage part right.

As the Rousseauean experiment in liberalism made its bloody progress through history, there was also a parallel kind of liberalism. This was the liberalism of Evangelicalism.

John Wesley was its prophet in England. England (it has been argued, and I believe it) avoided a revolution like the French largely because of Wesley. The converted Methodists carried on a practical experiment in social advancement through virtue – and it worked. His followers gave up gambling and drinking and vice in general. They worked and saved. And they prospered. “I can’t keep these people poor,” Wesley is supposed to have complained.

For a long time, the Evangelicals and the Rousseaueans were able to work together, against a common enemy – the classist old order that wanted to keep the commoners down.

But as the commoners were liberated, and moved into the middle class, the two strains parted.

The Evangelicals and classical liberals believed that Man was created in the image of God. They believed (or learned) that liberty was a divine gift, and that government should be limited, because government is made of sinful men, and neither the people nor the rulers should be left unchecked.

The Rousseaueans believed that Man was a corrupted noble savage. All that was needed to restore the State of Nature was a rational reordering of society, so that Man’s natural virtue might blossom. The government that promoted this reordering would automatically be wise and virtuous. Therefore all power could be trusted to it. Marx was an apostle of this view.

The Rousseauans took a while to abandon their old belief in personal freedom – “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” as Voltaire didn’t say (but it’s commonly attributed to him).

But they found that personal freedom is like a monkey wrench thrown into the machinery of the Ideal State the Rousseueans envision. Individual thinkers are hard to regiment. So personal freedom has to go (as the Communists decided early on). As personal freedom has lost its appeal to them, the liberals have become Leftists.

And that’s what I mean when I criticize Leftists. I mean people who hold such faith in the potential of the State for good that they consider freedom too dangerous to permit.

Which leaves us in an odd reversal. The Left, which once championed freedom of thought, now promotes the criminalization of all unsanctioned views. And the Evangelicals, who have now stepped into the space formerly occupied by conservatives, are (generally) championing freedom of thought. Not perfectly, I’m sure, but far more than the Left.

And so genuine liberals need to re-evaluate the situation, and decide whether they will follow freedom of thought, even if it leads them to the Right.

‘Hardcastle’s Runaway,’ by Graham Ison

Divisional Detective Inspector Hardcastle of the Whitehall Division of the Metropolitan Police is summoned to the office of the head of CID himself at the beginning of Hardcastle’s Runaway. He’s never met the Commissioner before, so he knows the matter at hand must be important.

But in fact it’s not. The Commissioner wants him to look for a missing girl, the daughter of a friend who’s a member of Parliament. It’s 1919, the Great War is newly over, and many young women like this one have bobbed their hair (and their skirts) and become what’s known as “flappers.” Inspector Hardcastle puts men on the job to find her, but after a few days she pops up of her own accord. That seems to be the end of the matter.

But the girl disappears again. Inquiries among her gentlemen friends, veteran military officers all, reveal that she was present at a party at a country house, and nobody has seen her since.

There are many influential men who do not wish their relationships with this young girl revealed. But Hardcastle has the Commisioner’s support, and he proceeds with his customary bluntness and tactlessness. In the end, a tragic secret will come to light.

The DDI Hardcastle novels were recommended to me as well-researched books, providing an accurate and realistic picture of London life around World War I. And this book provided that. A lot of research has been done, and it shows. Hardcastle’s Runaway was excellent as a time excursion.

What did not delight me was the main character. I like curmudgeonly heroes just fine (I flatter myself that I’m a curmudgeon myself). But Hardcastle seems to have nothing underneath the crust. He’s crust all through – bullheaded, opinionated, thoughtless of others. He seems to be a type rather than a character. I finally decided all this rudeness was meant to be comic. But it didn’t make me laugh. Maybe it’ll be more to your taste.

I recommend this book from an educational perspective, but as a work of fiction I found it wanting.

‘The Virginian, a Horseman of the Plains,’ by Owen Wister

“Is it too far to drive there to-night?” I inquired.

He looked at me in a puzzled manner.

“For this valise,” I explained, “contains all that I immediately need; in fact, I could do without my trunk for a day or two, if it is not convenient to send. So if we could arrive there not too late by starting at once—” I paused.

“It’s two hundred and sixty-three miles,” said the Virginian.

The scene above, (involving lost luggage) near the beginning of Owen Wister’s novel, The Virginian, seems to me to foreshadow a major theme of the novel. This is a panorama painted on a canvas a thousand miles wide. The landscape itself is a character in it. It’s a slow book, episodic and discursive, but that’s because everyplace is a long way from everyplace else, and travel takes time. There’s plenty of space in the intervals for serious thought or deep conversation. You get a real sense of the vastness of the Old West.

Built on a series of previously published short stories, some narrated by a character (unnamed, like the archetypal hero) who comes on stage only when needed, The Virginian has traditionally been regarded as the first serious Western novel (though recent critics have advanced the claims of some book nobody ever heard of, written – of course – by a woman).

I read it in high school, but my memories of it were vague. I was mostly surprised at how different it was from the TV show, which was being broadcast in those days (they made Trampas a good guy, for some reason). What I didn’t remember – or was too young to appreciate then – was what a beautiful novel it is (in spite of its antiquated style), nor did I imagine how it would move me.

The Virginian is a young Wyoming cowboy, tall and athletic and handsome. He works for Judge Henry’s ranch out on Sunk Creek. He’s a man of few words (setting the style for cowboy heroes ever since, from Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood). He is a natural man of principle. He has a sly sense of humor, and delights, with his rowdy friends, in practical jokes and taking people in with tall tales. (The tall tales are an interesting plot element. They serve as a nonviolent means of asserting rank in cowboy society – though they might lead to violence in any case.)

When an eastern schoolmarm from a respectable but impoverished family arrives in the area, the Virginian decides from the moment he sees her that he will marry her. She resists, attracted by his appearance and rough chivalry, but repelled by his low birth. His courtship takes years, and is resolved in an unexpected (and somewhat deus ex machina) manner. But win her he does.

The plot conflict centers on the struggle between the ranchers and the rustlers, whose leader is the scoundrel Trampas, who hates the Virginian mostly because he’s the better man, and they both know it. (Historically, the book was inspired by the Johnson County War of the 1880s and ‘90s. In those terms it’s remarkably biased and unjust. The “rustlers” the Virginian despises were actually often small ranchers fighting the high-handed tactics of the big operations. For a fictional treatment from the other side of the fight, check out Shane, by Jack Schaefer).

The final confrontation with the evil Trampas takes place (anticipating High Noon) on the Virginian’s wedding day.

Once that’s out of the way, movie treatments of this book tend to wrap the story up pretty quickly. But Owen Wister (once again) takes his time, bringing the reader along on the Virginian’s and his wife’s honeymoon (discreetly, of course). That section, which could have been anticlimactic, instead consummates (if I can be excused for using that word) the main theme of the whole book, it seems to me.

Because the Virginian and his bride become Adam and Eve in a new Eden – or perhaps Wister (whose opinions on religion, judging by the book, were not very orthodox) had Rousseau’s Noble Savage and the State of Nature in mind. I think he was expounding a vision for America’s future – that the New Man being formed in our wilderness would transform the earth through siring a new, wiser, more natural race of mankind.

Or so it seemed to me.

In any case, I found it deeply moving, even if I didn’t believe it for a minute.

The Virginian is a challenging book for modern readers, accustomed to fast-paced narratives, to tackle. But if you give it a chance, it’s worth it. I rate it very high.

‘Return of the Thin Man,’ by Dashiell Hammett

If you’re one of those underprivileged citizens who’s never enjoyed the Thin Man movie series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, you really owe it to yourself to watch them. The first two, at least, are almost perfect of their kind – a hybrid of hard-boiled crime story and screwball comedy, centering on a sophisticated, charming couple who adore each other and excel at repartee.

The Thin Man was Dashiell Hammet’s last and most successful novel, and was adapted (mostly by lightening its darker elements and cutting some stuff the censors wouldn’t approve) into a classic movie by film writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, themselves a married couple. It was so successful that the studio wanted a sequel, and offered Hammett a nice payday to come up with a story. Though delayed by drinking and blackouts, he delivered on time. The “story” he produced – basically a paragraph outline – became the movie After the Thin Man. Hammett’s story, combined with Hackett’s and Goodrich’s initial adjustments, constitute the first half of Return of the Thin Man. The second half is a similar story for the third film, Another Thin Man. At the end, Hammett’s proposal for a third sequel is included – it’s incoherent, inconsistent with the previous stories, and appears to show signs of Hammett’s advancing alcoholism.

The original Thin Man movie ends with our heroes, Nick and Nora Charles, in a Pullman car headed home from New York to San Francisco. After the Thin Man opens with them getting off the train (fans have chuckled for years over the fact that the trip took two years, so that clothing and car styles have changed). Arriving at their home, they find the place packed with Nick’s low-life friends from his days as a private eye – it’s a welcome home party, but nobody even notices their arrival for a while. The party is dampened by the appearance of a dead man on the doorstep, but Nick and Nora are summoned away to her grandmother’s grand mansion on Nob Hill. Her cousin’s dubious husband has disappeared, and she’s suspected of murdering him. Nora’s family strongly disapproves of Nick, but since he’s around, he must make himself useful by locating the errant husband and keeping the police off the premises. There is a murder, and the mystery that follows will involve a shady night club owner and multiple confidence games, before Nick can gather the suspects for the “payoff” scene, revealing the true culprit.

In Another Thin Man, Nick and Nora head back to New York state at the request of Nora’s father’s old business associate. He’s been threatened, and demands that Nick chase off the disgruntled former employee behind the threats. Nick also takes this opportunity to try to learn more about Nora’s family business – something he soon regrets (just out of boredom). Again, murder happens in spite of Nick’s efforts, but he will beat the police to the true solution.

I had looked forward to reading a couple of Thin Man novellas – which is what the publisher’s description calls these works. But that’s not what they are. “Stories” for movies are meant to be brief and spare and devoid of sparkle. Just the facts, ma’am. As such, these stories make rather dull reading.

I was surprised that I have no memory of Another Thin Man. It’s possible I’ve never seen it – or that it’s been so long I’ve forgotten it. Must remedy that.

I didn’t waste any money on Return of the Thin Man, since I got it free from Amazon Prime. But I can’t really recommend it, except to the hard-core Nick and Nora fan, who’ll be interested in the minor ways in which the narratives changed in the transition from story to screen.

‘Murder at the Flood,’ by Bruce Beckham

I’ve lost all the sequence in the Inspector Skelgill series of novels, having jumped forward at some point and now needing to fill in the books I missed (I think I’ve caught up now). It doesn’t really matter, though, the basic formula doesn’t change – Inspector Skelgill, the crusty, misanthropic Cumbria policeman whose two passions are crime solving and fishing, supported by the attractive female DS Jones and transplanted cockney DS Leyton. In the background is always the unspoken attraction between him and Jones, which he’s too obtuse to follow up. But then women are always throwing themselves at him, and he generally doesn’t bother his head about them either.

In Murder at the Flood he has more than his share. Roger Alcock, a local kayaking outfitter with a reputation as a lady’s man, disappears during a freak flood. When his body is found a couple days later, it looks like he hit his head and drowned, but the pathologist says no. It was murder. Roger Alcock’s widow is an obvious suspect, but Skelgill is reluctant to believe it of her. He knew her as a girl, when he dated her older sister – who has now returned from Australia and taken direct sexual aim at Skelgill. There’s also a female TV reporter who’s willing to scratch his back if he’ll scratch hers – probably in more senses than one.

Skelgill will sort it all out in the end, as he always does.

Good entertainment in a good series. The disturbing stuff happens offstage, and the author happily admits that he edits out the worst language. Recommended, as is the whole series.

“As Individuals, We Can Never Be Happy”

To label [novelist Marilynne] Robinson a postmodern conservative or a conservative postmodernist seems to invite boundary policing and accusations of claiming the novelist for a political agenda she does not share. Perhaps a turn away from the language of modern politics can allow us to state what Robinson and [Peter Augustine] Lawler hold in common. Their respective postmodernisms represent, above all, returns to humanism. Specifically, the recognition of the human as a created being is found both in Robinson’s “radical anthropocentricity” and in Lawler’s “whole human being.” The intellectual terrain they share might be called a postmodern humanism (or a humanist postmodernism), joined in the understanding, in Lawler’s words, that “to the extent we understand ourselves as individuals we can never be happy.”

J. L. Wall writes about the big ideas behind Robinson’s stories and essays and how she and Lawler both believe we have lost the language to communicate our deepest longings. We can still ask the right questions, but our attempts at answers fall short.

Also on this subject: “So why are humans in the secular age so unhappy? Calasso says it is because they find something ominous in the insubstantiality they feel both within themselves and in the world around them.” From a review of The Unnamable Present by Roberto Calasso.

‘A Bespoke Murder,’ by Edward Marston

A historical mystery set in an intriguing time and place. I figured I’d take a chance on A Bespoke Murder, by Edward Marston.

It’s 1915, and England is at war. In the wake of the sinking of the Lusitania, anti-German sentiment is boiling over in England. Even in London’s posh West End, Jacob Stein’s fashionable tailor shop is smashed up by a mob, and set on fire. Mr. Stein himself is left dead. And his daughter is raped.

But Stein’s death was not random violence. Someone stabbed him, and made away with the contents of his safe. That makes it look like premeditated murder. Particularly since Stein was not merely German, but Jewish.

Inspector Harvey Marmion and his assistant Sergeant Joe Keedy are assigned to investigate. From the beginning, their work is hindered by the meddling of Stein’s blustering brother, and by the fears of the traumatized daughter. They will have to descend into the dark world of antisemitic political groups to unmask the true villain.

In spite of an interesting mystery and an interesting setting, I found A Bespoke Murder a disappointment, for several reasons. First of all, the characters weren’t very vivid. The good characters acted and spoke very much as people do today – even sometimes using neologisms like “hassling” for “bothering.” A fair amount of research must have been done on this book – why not throw in some contemporary idioms in the dialogue? Not a lot, but a sprinkling would have added verisimilitude. And the “good people” were just so pleasant. Very little friction or conflict between them, and few attitudes expressed that would make 21st Century people uncomfortable. The book seemed to me overwritten, and aimed at an unsophisticated audience.

I finished the book to find out whodunnit, but although there are several sequels, I’m not interested enough in these characters to read them.

Willing to Fail: Adorning the Dark

Author and musician Andrew Peterson has written a book on artistic creativity for everyone, called Adorning the Dark. It will be released in four days. (Already Amazon’s #1 seller in Music Encyclopedias. What?)

On his promotional site (from which I pulled this graphic above), Peterson describes the book.

This isn’t a technical “this is how you write a song” kind of book. There are plenty of those, and I don’t happen to think they do much good. I wanted to write something that would be helpful to all manner of disciplines: songwriters, novelists, poets, painters and pastors—but also parents and teachers and accountants and carpenters. One of my soapboxes in the book is that everyone’s creative. Everyone. And my hope is that the principles I cover in “Adorning the Dark” can be helpful no matter what field you’re in.

‘Turpitude,’ by Pete Brassett

I’m always pleased by the appearance of a new Inspector Munro novel by Pete Brassett. The latest installment in the series, set in Ayrshire, Scotland, is Turpitude, and it was as enjoyable as its predecessors.

Inspector Munro is no longer a working police detective. He’s overage and recovering from a heart attack. But he can’t keep away from the office, and frankly his old team, led by female detective Charlie West, is happy to have him on this one.

First of all, a couple garbage workers find three severed fingers in a tin of dog food. Oddly, nobody seems to have been treated for the injury in a hospital, and when they find the victim he’s not much interested in preferring charges.

Then a man walks into a jewelry store and bashes the owner over the head with a hammer. CCTV and witness statements provide few clues to the police.

It’s only Munro’s experience and intelligence that gently lead the detectives down the right paths to finally identify the culprits, uncovering an improbable conspiracy with bizarre motives.

As I said already, any time spent with Munro & Co. is time well spent. I recommend Turpitude, in spite of a measure of political correctness.

We Can Read Anything, But Do We Read Well?

Imagine there’re no novels
No books for us to buy
No bargain basement deals
Just notes to apply
Imagine no one reading more than daily tweets

Sings the would-be profound poet in the corner coffeeshop.

Has the virtually infinite access to written resources improved or inhibited our reading? To put it another way, are we wiser as a society for having so much more information? Author Sven Birkerts doesn’t think we are, and he’s written a book that celebrates reading and warns us against forgetting how much fun it is.

We know countless more “bits” of information, both important and trivial, than our ancestors. . . . [But] inundated by perspectives, by lateral vistas of information that stretch endlessly in every direction, we no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture. Instead of carrying on the ancient project of philosophy—attempting to discover the “truth” of things—we direct our energies to managing information. . . .

Access may not be the undiluted blessing we can easily perceive it to be. Rather, we might gain wisdom more readily not simply by owning fewer books, but by focusing on fewer, and knowing those few better.

from The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

Photo by Perfecto Capucine from Pexels

‘Moorings,’ by David Blake

When a decorated World War II hero is found drowned in his bath – not by accident, according to the coroner – Detective Inspector John Tanner and his partner (both personal and professional) Jenny Evans are pulled from missing persons duty to look into it. There are two surviving sons, and a pair of adult twin grandchildren. None of them seems to need money enough to kill the old man for the value of the decaying boatyard he owns. That’s the premise of David Blake’s novel Moorings, third in his Norfolk Broads police procedural series.

People kill for motives other than money, however. The suspect pool gradually shrinks as one by one the heirs are murdered, and in the end Tanner and Jenny will face the irrational fury of someone who has suffered an old, unpunished crime.

Moorings was an enjoyable, fast-paced mystery with appealing characters. I thought the plot had some weaknesses – there are a whole lot of coincidences, and the police procedures seemed kind of loosely observed to me (though perhaps their rules of evidence are different from the American). Also, Tanner and Jenny witness a particularly harrowing death that seems (to me) to affect them rather less than it should.

As in all the books, there’s a Bible passage at the beginning. And we are told that Tanner is weakening in his agnosticism. Which is always nice.

Recommended, for entertainment purposes. Mild cautions for the usual stuff.

Brief Review of History Books

SOME TRADITIONAL Christian publishers don’t do much in history. After years of reading overstatements from both left and right concerning America’s founding, I enjoyed the calm and thorough analysis of Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? (Thomas Nelson, 2019). Those who read minds and extrapolate diaries may still fight over questions of sincerity and personal faithfulness, but Hall clearly shows what’s most important: that Christian ideas profoundly influenced the Founders, and through them all of us.

World Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky offers many quick evaluations of new history books in this week’s issue, pointing out trends from select publishers like the above. He notes Mary Grabar’s Debunking Howard Zinn, which we highlighted earlier this year.

‘St. Benet’s,’ by David Blake

Book 2 in David Blake’s Norfolk Broads police procedural series is St. Benet’s. As you might guess, this novel takes its name from a church, and the issue of religion gets touched on.

Detective John Tanner is now cohabiting, at least much of the time, with his partner, attractive DC Jenny Evans. This is against regulations, but nobody’s called them on it yet.

Jenny in particular is appalled when they’re called to the ruined abbey adjoining the Catholic church to which she (technically) belongs, though her practice has lapsed. A man has been found on the site of the old altar, his head nearly severed and a knife in his hand. It looks like suicide, but if so it’s an extreme one, and John isn’t certain about it. The dead man was the former priest of the parish. Years ago he was accused of the rape and murder of a teenaged girl. He was acquitted, but excommunicated. After that he became the head of his own Satanic cult, and wrote a bestselling book. In that book, he suggested that he might be able to kill himself and rise from the dead, through diabolical power.

And then his tomb is struck by lightning, and another young girl is murdered on the site. And the priest’s corpse disappears.

Tanner’s and Jenny’s working relationship is strained when he makes some disparaging remarks about religion, which offend her. But they have to keep their eyes on the puzzle, because more murders are coming, and they are very cruel murders. Of course they can’t have been committed by the dead priest… can they?

St. Benet’s was a fairly engaging mystery in which religious questions were handled more or less even-handedly (though some very poor theology gets expressed, but that may just be the individual characters’ voices). My biggest problem with the book was that I figured out the murderer fairly early on.

Still, it was entertaining.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture